The U.S. telecom landscape can get confusing. But I think we can all agree that technology is pushing forward and consumers will benefit by having more ways to watch the video content they want to watch in a simple way. And so if you’re a subscriber to DISH satellite TV service, it would be really nice to be able to stream the content you’re paying for to a smartphone, tablet or computer within your home or when you’re on the road.
The action going on between Sprint, Clearwire, Softbank and Dish Network is really interesting, and much like a game of poker. Let’s have a look.
Sprint is the No. 3 player in the U.S. market. Years ago this CDMA network operator acquired Nextel (and it’s push to talk iDEN network) to gain scale, hoping to consolidate all of these customers on one big future network. Unfortunately, Sprint hasn’t had the balance sheet strength that rivals AT&T and Verizon had.
What made Sprint interesting over the last few years was its investment in Clearwire, the country’s first true 4G wireless network operator. Sprint owns 51 percent of Clearwire as of right now and is currently attempting to buy the remaining 49 percent. For those who remember, Clearwire had very aggressive WiMAX plans and launched super-fast wireless data services in places like Chicago and Portland. But Clearwire ran into its own capital constraints, slowing it down. All the while, the market left WiMAX behind and it became obvious that Clearwire needed to adopt LTE instead.
Without a stellar balance sheet, how could Sprint buy Clearwire? That’s where Japanese operator Softbank comes into play. Back in October 2012 Softbank launched a friendly bid to acquire 70 percent of Sprint. This deal, which was pretty complex, gave Sprint the cash it needed to go after a full takeover of Clearwire. One of Clearwire’s biggest assets is its huge swath of radio spectrum. Combine Sprint and Clearwire and you have an incredible resource of spectrum.
Enter Dish Network and its well-known CEO, Charlie Ergen. Here we have a satellite TV company that has introduced some innovations like the “Hopper” ad skipping technology. But it’s still a company stuck in the old world of TV delivery. Charlie Ergen knows that Dish needs a wireless presence to stay relevant, and Charlie has his eye on Clearwire’s spectrum.
When Sprint (together with Softbank) bid to buy the rest of Clearwire for $2.97 per share, it forced Dish into action. They responded by raising the bid to $3.30, topping Sprint’s offer. Remember Sprint is the majority shareholder of Clearwire. But not wanting to piss off the minority shareholders, Sprint raised the Dish bid by a dime, coming back with a $3.40 bid. Are you starting to see how this looks like a poker game?
Charlie Ergen didn’t back down. He came back this week with a full $1 raise on Sprint’s bid, upping the price to $4.40 per share. This is getting interesting! But what I haven’t explained yet is the alternative plan that Dish cooked up to interfere with the Softbank / Sprint deal.
You see, if Softbank injects a ton of cash into Sprint, then there is no debate Sprint can beat Dish in a bid for Clearwire. So what’s Charlie to do? Put in a bid for all of Sprint. Not just 70 percent of the company like Softbank’s bid, but the entire company. That’s exactly what they did last month.
Dish and Sprint, together, would not be particularly well capitalized. Everyone knows this. That’s what leads most industry pundits to conclude that what Dish really wants is to make it difficult for Softbank to acquire Sprint (and therefore Clearwire too) without granting Dish some sort of network access deal.
Former Wall Street telecom analyst Jack Grubman explains it all quite well in this video interview with CNBC.
So what’s going to happen in the end? Who knows. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the bidding for Clearwire kept going. Spectrum has a lot of value and the wireless industry is still seeing huge growth. Softbank has deeper pockets than Dish, but Dish has enough power to push for a network sharing deal in return for backing away from table on its push to acquire Clearwire and Sprint.